Virtual Church

All the way back in seminary my friends and I used to joke about virtual church.  What made it so funny was that the idea seemed ridiculous.  The very raison d’être for church (which essentially means “gathering”) was, well, gathering.  We joshed about putting a communion card into an ATM and getting bread and wine.  Little did we know we’d live to see virtual church become a reality.  While I prefer not to tip my hand as to my affiliation (I began doing this when teaching at secular schools, for if a professor of religion is being academic about their specialization their affiliation should have no bearing on the class) I confess I am the member of a religious community.  That community has become virtual, as of today.

This isn’t a permanent thing.  Unless coronavirus is a permanent thing.  As I spoke with my clergy person about it, I wondered how many people would attend virtual services.  Sermons would need to be stellar.  Who would hear if I tried to sing hymns (this is not a pretty thing, take my word for it)?  My laptop doesn’t even have a disc slot into which I could insert my offering.  Churches, synagogues, mosques—they’re about community.  What does community feel like when you’re sitting there in your pajamas, at least on the part that the webcam doesn’t pick up?  Does the minister see you in virtual church?  Have I, like number 6, been reduced to a numeral?  I suspect the current crisis is going to be a real test for faith communities.  Meeting together would make us all feel like snake-handlers now.

The funny thing was, back in seminary it was a joke.  At Boston University School of Theology in the late 1980s we knew that churches weren’t really growing.  Some megas had started and we now see them following the mushroom cloud to its dissipation stage.  As little as we meant it, we could see devices creeping into the mix.  I did not use a computer until after seminary.  Funnily enough, thinking back to the pre-1990s, we survived without cell phones.  If you were going to church you were going. To. Church.  These days of pandemic in the pews will be a real test of the preacher’s power.  For Episcopalians the mediating of grace had to be done in person.  I remember watching worriedly as the priest, clearly with a sniffle, was the first one to take a sip from the community chalice before holding it out for others to drink.  We wondered about efficacy of ATMs dispensing consecrated hosts.  It was only a joke, then; really it was.

Truth, Justice, and

Martin Luther King, Jr. attended Boston University School of Theology long before I did.  We remember him today as a great leader, a man willing to die for what he believed in.  And all these years later we’re still struggling to find some semblance of racial equality.  We can’t seem to admit that race is a social construct and not a scientific category.  Indeed, the only race is the human race.  King saw that, and staked his life on it.  Today we’re ruled by politicians who, when faced with the truth immediately shout “fake news!”  “Liberal!”  They may stop short of using some words not because they don’t want to, but because they could cost them at the polls come November.  America is watching.  I’m sitting here thinking how Martin Luther King died when I was just five.  He’d started something righteous and just.  And millions were out marching in the cold on Saturday to say we still believe in justice. 

I didn’t pick Boston University School of Theology just because King was its most famous alum.  The other day a guy noticed my BU stocking cap and asked if it was “Boston University.”  This wasn’t an educated person, but I’m guessing that most school paraphernalia has to do with sports and the game was on in the background, so the question was logical.  I told him it was Binghamton University, a school with which I also have an intimate connection, one step removed.  He said, “Binghamton!  I saw your cap and thought Baylor?  No.  Must be Boston.”  But ironically he ended up with the right school for me, but the wrong school for what I was wearing.  I did pick BU because I realized that strong academics are nothing without social justice.  Of course, academia wanted nothing to do with that.

Recently I read how Republican resentment towards liberals has very solid roots in racism.  Oh, they will deny it—their “fake news” trigger-finger is very itchy—but the whole package is tied up with anger that an African-American was elected president.  Follow that up with an old, white racist.  How will history look back on this insane era?  I think we already know.  While the privileged are trying to build their own legacies, I ponder an African-American preacher with clear vision as the one we remember today.  I went to Boston University naive and full of hope.  I heard a lot about King when I was there.  I knew something of dreams and how costly they could be.  Today I sit here and cuddle the epithet “liberal” and think how it’s become a swear word for some, while its real meaning of “justice” continues to go unheeded.

Conservation?

I am not a conservative.  There, I’ve said it.  You have very little control over who your parents are or how they raise you.  As I confessed here many times, I was raised in a conservative Christian home of the fundamentalist stripe.  Like most kids scared of Hell I took it all very seriously.  It is the reason I followed the career path—or perhaps career swamp trek—that I have.  In any case, the other day I was looking through a Baker Academic catalogue.  Baker, in case you don’t follow the high drama of the publishing industry, is one of the many Christian publishing houses with roots in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Like most publishers in that collective, it tends toward the conservative end of the theological spectrum.  As I flipped through I noticed bio after bio of authors with Ph.D.s from Edinburgh, Cambridge, and other prestigious universities in the United Kingdom.

I hadn’t been warned, you see.  Many conservatives who want a doctorate study in the UK because they can do so without taking all those classes that will make them examine the Bible critically.  That’s not why I went to Edinburgh, but I can see how it might look like that from the outside.  I went to Grove City College—a bastion of conservatism.  (I was raised that way, remember?)  My next educational move should give the lie to my attempt to remain conservative; Boston University School of Theology was considered the most liberal United Methodist seminary in the pre-Internet days.  I attended for that very reason.  Edinburgh, my true alma mater, was selected because they offered a scholarship that made it possible for a poor kid to finish a doctorate.  I wasn’t conservative when I went, and I wasn’t conservative when I came out.

I didn’t get the memo, I guess.  The sneaking suspicion that I might be conservative has dogged my career.  My dissertation can be read that way, but it’s not a conservative argument.  I merely suggested the decision to marry Yahweh off to Asherah was a bit hasty, based on the actual evidence.  I’m all for married deities—they tend to be less frustrated toward humanity.  Maybe the Almighty could speak to Mrs. God about correcting these worries about what I “really believe.”  I went to a conservative college to learn—there were a fair number of attempts to indoctrinate there, but if you thought about things you could see through them, even with a fundie upbringing.  But as I thumb through the catalogue I can see how perceptions can work against you, especially when your first job is at a conservative seminary, eh, Mrs. God?  

Iron Ages

I find myself in Pittsburgh again.  We set out from the former steel city of Bethlehem and ended up in the former steel city on the other side of the state.  I’m not here for the metal, of course, but to visit family.  Making our way over the great eroded spine of the ancient Appalachians, I was thinking of how cities often take on the identity of their industries.  Pittsburgh and Bethlehem vied with each other for their facility with unyielding iron—one of the technologies so important to human history that we still use the Iron Age as a marker of advancing technology.  Pittsburgh’s now a tech city, much reduced in size from its heyday when only fifteen cities in the country were larger.  Bethlehem, it seems, is still trying to figure out exactly what it wants to be.

Back in college, I used to work in a church in the south hills.  I haven’t been to Windover Hills United Methodist Church since those days.  I was weighing my future then, deciding to attend Boston University School of Theology—the seminary the pastor had attended—and exposing myself to liberal thinking rather than more of the conservative milquetoast that was mistaken for milk and honey at Grove City College.  The memories that attended the drive were powerful and poignant.  I only lived in Pittsburgh two summers—the second working as a bagger at a grocery store (I should’ve known then where a college degree in religious studies might lead, even if summa cum laude).  As iron sharpens iron, so the Good Book says.

Recently I tried to recall all the addresses at which I’ve lived.  This seems particularly important because many of the buildings no longer stand and I greatly fear being erased.  Those of us who write often do.  I can recall the cities and even a few of the streets.  Numbers often escape me, for they seem to be mere place holders.  My days in Pittsburgh were decades ago, when life was really only just beginning.  Now I drive these hills with memories my only maps, wondering if I can find the place I’m seeking.  This place is part of me, even as Bethlehem is now becoming such a piece.  Cities change depending on the laws of supply and demand that can, as we know, even break iron.  And those of us who live in such places know that any industry is subject to memory, whether of God or of steel.

The Dots

Connections have always fascinated me.  Maybe it’s because life is a random stream of stuff constantly thrown at you that makes a mockery of any plans you might try to implement.  Me at Nashotah House?  Really?  Nevertheless, these events shape us and everything that happens thereafter is seen in light of them.  So when connections occur amid this continual flux, I sit up and take notice.  For example, I had never thought of moving to eastern Pennsylvania.  Now, around Christmastime, I find myself not far from Bethlehem.  Bethlehem was so named because it was founded on Christmas Eve by Moravians who’d settled in the area.  Although not counted among the most numerous of Protestants today, Moravians had a profound effect on the founder of Methodism, John Wesley.  In fact, he met Count Zinzendorf, whose name appears on this handsome plaque in historic downtown Bethlehem, at a pivotal moment in his own spiritual journey.

Having grown up Fundamentalist, the United Methodist Church would not have been our choice, although we had unwittingly attended one of the Methodist offshoots—the Church of the Nazarene—from time to time.  In one of those unplanned things, we found ourselves in Rouseville, Pennsylvania, where the only Protestant church was United Methodist.  Once ensconced in the UMC it was my plan to become a minister in that tradition.  That led me to Boston University School of Theology where I first learned about the Wesley-Zinzendorf connection.  It was also there that I met my wife.  And subsequently joined the Episcopal Church.  Why?  John Wesley had been adamant that his followers not drop out of the church in which he was an ordained priest.  I was only following instructions.

Had that not happened I would never have had my first, and so far only, full-time academic job.  Nashotah House was conservative, and I was not.  We nevertheless had a connection.  Growing up I’d barely heard of Wisconsin, let alone planned to live there.  When Nashotah no longer required my services my career had to change as well.  None of this was in the plan.  Who plans to move to New Jersey?  And now everyone thinks of me as an editor, a fallback position if there ever was one.  Since I work in New York City, moving back to my native Pennsylvania wasn’t really on the agenda.  An outside agent led to that.  So I find myself near Bethlehem in the Christmas season, staring at Count Zinzendorf’s name, which I first heard of in a seminary now far away.  Connections, even with those long gone, are always worth noting.

Galilean Blues

Call me nostalgic, but growing up Fundie, “Capernaum” tripped easily off my lips.  In fact, it was a word I heard very frequently at church, always pronounced “kap-er-NEE-um” (please pardon my amateur phonetics).  Even though no one I knew had ever been to Israel, we all knew it was in Galilee and that it figured large in the early life of Jesus of Nazareth (although we assumed he was surnamed “Christ”).  When I attended seminary I was surprised to hear the geonym pronounced “ka-per-NUM.”  It sounded so sophisticated—aristocratic, even.  Still, everyone at Boston University School of Theology knew what, and roughly where, it was.  It was a household name, no matter how you pronounced it.

Spellcheck disagrees.  It doesn’t recognize one of the most famous places in the New Testament.  Now, I’m aware that my view of things is idiosyncratic.  This blog should be proof of that.  Those who grow up from Fundamentalism often know this experience—something that everyone knew when you were young and informed is arcane knowledge to the rest of the world where Kardashians and Sedarises are household names.  The Bible, irrelevant at best, is a foreign country.  Then the religious right comes to power and everyone’s confused.  They don’t speak the same language as the rest of the world.  They say kap-er-NEE-um.  Others scratch their heads and glance at their knee caps.

When I visited ancient Capernaum it required some imagination to reconstruct what it had been, back in the day.  Since the ruins were relatively recent—only a millennium or two—some of the buildings were still above ground, including the famous synagogue.  Even among the unchurched archaeologists, everyone knew the connection of the city to Jesus of Nazareth.  That doesn’t mean, however, that the programmers responsible for spellcheck recognize the name.  Kardashian doesn’t get a red underline on my word processor.  Even in the first century, however, Galilee was a backwater (with real water!).  Important people came from big cities and had family connections.

Some things don’t change much over the millennia.  The famous often find their spotlight because of connections.  If the deity decided to incarnate today, s/he’d know to get a website put together first.  And it would help to have some product endorsements.  Even salvation at a click isn’t enough to draw most people in.  Of course, the matter of name—excuse me, “brand”—is important.  More than anything, you want something people can pronounce.  And just to be safe, anchor it to either New York or the city named The Angels.

The Distortion of Absence

I’m sure it’s happened to you, too.  After some time away, you return to somewhere familiar.  For some reason this doesn’t seem to apply to places you spend only a little time—for example, the cabin where I tend to go on vacation every year.  Rather, it impacts quotidian spaces, the places you see nearly every day.  Returning after an absence, the place looks strange, as if you’d forgotten what it was really like.  A fairly common example is a college dorm room.  When you return to it after, say, the winter holiday, it looks not quite how you remembered it.  It’s a little smaller or larger than you recalled, or you didn’t remember that the floor tiles were that color.  Within a day or so the feeling disappears and you accept the “new normal.”

The strange, or unfamiliar, is the source of many monsters.  Freud famously phrased the uncanny as “unheimlich,” un-home-like.  It is close to what you expected, but not exactly.  The uncanny valley is that place where things are about right, but slightly off.  It generates a creepy feeling, as if reality is being distorted.  On a business trip to Boston a few years back I visited Boston University School of Theology, a place where I spent over two years in my twenties.  745 Commonwealth Avenue hadn’t been renovated, but I stepped inside and was stunned by how wide the hall was.  In my mind it had become far narrower.  It was downright disturbing, as if I’d walked into somebody else’s past.  It made me wonder—is any of this really real?  Or more frighteningly—is my memory that fragile?

I recently spent a day working in the New York office.  While the office itself seemed the same, the city did not.  Emerging from the Port Authority Bus Terminal I knew exactly where I was.  Or did I?  I’d walked roughly the same route daily for almost five years, and two years before that a similar track.  It was as if the bus had exited the Lincoln Tunnel into an alternate Manhattan.  Unheimlich.  I’ve returned to many places after being away for awhile and this distortion of absence always creeps me out.  Can my memory be that faulty or is all of this an illusion?  The gap between present reality and remembered reality provides crevices into which monsters crawl, waiting.  By the time I reached the block of my office the feeling had gone away.  But somehow, the monsters remained.